Citizenship and media education in contested times: an interview with Shakuntala Banaji

Banaji profile mainIn the second of two posts looking at citizenship and media education, this is an interview with one of the most interesting thinkers and researchers in this area, Professor Shakuntala Banaji.

Banaji profile mainFollowing on from my previous post about citizenship and media education, I interviewed one of the most interesting thinkers and researchers in this area, Professor Shakuntala Banaji of the London School of Economics. In my view, her work takes us beyond some of the limitations and blind alleys of previous debates in this area, and suggests a challenging new agenda for global citizenship education. Some years ago, Shaku collaborated with me on the cross-European project ‘Civic Web’, about young people, the internet and civic participation. Over the past ten years, she has led several further research studies in this area, as well as continuing her research about children and media, especially in India – most notably in this book. Her most recent book, published last year, is Youth Active Citizenship in Europe (with Sam Meijas). You can find out more about her work here.


Why citizenship?

Citizenship education really came onto the radar in the UK with the advent of New Labour in the late 1990s. Citizenship also emerged as a key theme in work on media and technology at around the same time, in the form of debates about ‘civic participation’ and the internet. Twenty years on, despite much that has changed, it seems that we are still talking about citizenship. My question is: why? Why is ‘citizenship’ such a persistent theme? What problems does it promise to address? What are the functions of ‘citizenship talk’ for different interest groups? Why are we still talking about this in the third decade of the twenty-first century? And how do you think the debate has evolved?

The resilience of citizenship as a concept and active citizenship as a discourse isn’t attributable to a single cause. On the one hand are those who would like to find ways of harnessing the power of individuals and communities for or against particular social causes and in order to change social and cultural behaviours in specific ways – to make society more just, happier, more diverse, more cohesive, less violent, more ecologically sustainable and so on. Many adults are invested in educating and socialising young people to participate in the running of local and national communities and in the governance of society. Often they hope to achieve this through tacit and habitual socialisation. However, if this learning is to be made explicit, citizenship discourse, tied as it is to national and regional governance, provides an accessible shorthand for a deeper political and historical education which many do not have time or inclination for.

On the other hand, as long as there are borders and mandated processes requiring individuals and communities to be enumerated, registered and surveilled by the state in order to reside within a particular geographical area, or to vote, own land, receive medical treatment, housing or educational support, there are likely to be groups who cling to discourses of citizenship as a way of differentiating between “self” and “others”, including some and excluding others.

For the first group, citizenship education can be a way of challenging ideas about exclusion which permeate the mass media and governmental discourse in many countries around the world; so, for instance, it can be seen as a means of establishing that one can be a “good citizen” regardless of religion, race, caste or class, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation and so on. For people who take this perspective it can enable a study of histories of rights and inclusion, and of the struggles to reach these rights.

By contrast, for what we might call the “exclusionary group” there is a strong wish to reinforce the uniqueness and even the superiority of belonging to their own particular nation and to the group which they feel is deserving of this citizenship. Any form of education – citizenship or otherwise – which calls this superiority and its boundaries into question needs to be challenged. (We might note here the recent attacks on Critical Race Theory and its justice-based philosophy by rightwing politicians and governments in the US and Europe. Therefore this group is keen on highly conservative and normative discourses of national history and citizenship, with far less emphasis on issues of rights, struggle and inclusion. Here, citizenship discourse plays the role of putting up a wall or closing a door against those imagined and represented to be undeserving others. As this group has grown in number and confidence with the victory of rightwing and far right politicians across the globe over the last two decades, this type of discussion of citizenship has become increasingly militant and visceral – and mass media have been co-opted in many cases to the point where they either parrot this discourse or are afraid to challenge it. Therefore, it’s possible to see a pattern in which the discourse has now become increasingly about who can or should be included as a citizen and what actions count as civic actions.

Norms of citizenship

One of the key things you have been doing in your work is to challenge normative views of citizenship – by which I mean fixed ideas about what a ‘good citizen’ should be like, and how they should behave. You can find these normative views, not just in conservative ideas about ‘civics’, but also in more left-liberal ideas about civic engagement and participation. Why do you think we need to question these ideas? What does this questioning achieve, not least in terms of political and educational practice? And are you not at risk of merely implying another, equally normative, view?

In practice, over centuries rather than decades, there has been constant contestation over citizenship norms and a persistent, recursive rethinking of citizenship expectations. Some long-held norms have been rejected when a country moves from one form of governance to another (as happened across Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece in the years following the second world war); while others live on, but not as strongly, or not with as wide acceptance as they previously enjoyed (for instance reverence for religion or for monarchy).

To exemplify this further, take the notion of citizenship tests, which are increasingly being used in Western countries, and compare it to the immediate aftermath of the second world war when a large part of the global south was decolonising, refugees and prisoners of war were stateless, and there was more flux and fluidity in terms of international movement. Or take countries that used to have conscription – and where military service was an essential element of citizenship – but which now have professional armies, and other countries where the voting age has been lowered and groups who never had a vote before now have one. Or think about taxation systems that enable inclusive welfare policies. Quite frequently, one set of normative proposals replaces another.

Shaku bookSo, my work isn’t rejecting outright the need to frame some norms if we’re going to keep working in this field and with this concept. But what I’ve been trying to do is to urge everyone – and particularly those who work with young people in civic education or political education, or who research this subject – to identify the philosophical underpinnings of their conception of citizenship and to examine these against sets of practical and ethical criteria. This means questioning both the perspectives of those who have tended to be very powerful in setting up citizenship agendas, discourses, boundaries and tests, and in judging the citizenship of fellow citizens and younger citizens in particular as being wanting or lacking in relation to sets of criteria. What I’ve tried to show in my work is that the criteria against which many people’s citizenship or civic action gets judged are neither universally accepted nor arbitrary: they reflect our very particular historical, social and political contexts. So, it is well worth knowing who came up with these criteria, and in what circumstances and with which presuppositions.

If we do this, of course we risk unsettling the status quo. But we also gain massively in terms of widening the pool of who counts as a citizen, and how citizens are able to think of themselves as political beings, as active participants in the civic sphere. Take for example the sorts of questions that often determine if somebody is an active citizen: “Do you vote regularly? Do you pay taxes? Do you write letters to politicians? Do you volunteer? Do you know who your representatives are?” or “Do you believe in law and order? Have you ever participated in a viral campaign over an issue?” and so on and so forth. These questions have inherent biases which mean that children, very young people, many working class people, many homeless people, many single mothers, many refugees – who contribute immensely to their communities as carers and can put enormous amounts of creative energy into protesting against injustice – would appear not to be civic at all. Meanwhile, an adherent of the far right who consistently votes for policies that are decimating their own economy and the fabric of their society would be able to proudly answer in ways that position them as ideal citizens. Of course, these criteria are bound to reflect the identities of the people who espouse and apply them, who are usually from a majority religious or ethnic group and usually wealthy or middle class.

Views of technology

In the mid-2000s, when you and I started doing the work for the Civic Web project, there was a general air of optimism about the positive potential of technology: the internet was going to be the new public sphere, it was going to save democracy and community and all those good things. More than a decade on, it seems as though we have come to an almost opposite position: the internet, or at least the big companies that control it, are now being held responsible for the death of democracy. How do you read these changing views? Has the Good Internet finally lost out to the Bad Internet? Can that early optimism be recovered, and is it worth recovering?

It was certainly simplistic to see the internet as the saviour of democracy; but it is perhaps almost as simplistic to view large tech companies as being responsible for the death of democracy today. Media technologies and social media platform policies interact with and enable a multitude of complex processes. There is, of course, no doubt that the association of social media with authoritarianism and violent extremist positions has increased exponentially since the mid-2000s. However, there is also a broader range of troubling tendencies, not least the ways in which mainstream media ownership and ideology has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and has increasingly been associated with the spread of propaganda and disinformation by authoritarian regimes, on a scale unprecedented since the 1930s.

So, when it comes to citizens and their right to freedom of voice and information, while it might appear that the internet and social media have given everyone more choice, what’s actually happened is quite the opposite. The complex political economic choices being made by mainstream media and tech corporations entail a narrowing of the democratic public spere and a reinforcing of racist or other exclusionary disinformation – for instance to do with migrants and refugees, the causes of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for privatisation and so on and so forth. Meanwhile both mainstream (legacy) media and social media giants are doing their best to censor and control any of their own editors, journalists, AI people and moderators who point out the inbuilt political and social biases in surveillance, data-capture, facial recognition, hate speech policies, moderation strategies or algorithms and more.

At the same time, corrupt and powerful right-wing parties have befriended or put pressure on social media companies and data-mining corporations to assist them in their campaigns. Witness the 2019 BJP campaign in India, the 2018 Bolsonaro campaign in Brazil, or the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the US and UK, and the way targeted disinformation on Facebook and elsewhere has been used to sway citizens who vote towards decisions that concentrate even more power in the hands of those politicians.

Would all this be happening without what you jokingly call the “bad internet”? The answer is that it’s quite possible. Work on the vast propaganda machines of the colonial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, or of the Nazi and Fascist parties in the 1930s and 40s, or Stalin’s regime, all attest that it’s quite possible, and even likely, that disinformation and authoritarianism such as we see now could be spread even without Twitter or WhatsApp.

Equally, I don’t think that it’s a question of whether the “good internet” can be recovered. The “good internet” continues to be used by those with the will and the means: for instance Indian Twitter at the moment is attempting to do the job of government services in several parts of the country by putting those who are dying without oxygen in touch with those who might save them. The Palestinian internet and its supporters in the diaspora has drawn attention to war crimes, forcing a hostile western media to report on the carnage and death caused by an occupying army and violent vigilantes. It’s about whether there are enough citizens with the courage, knowledge, skills and will to challenge anti-democratic practices, and to risk themselves for political change. That’s what it’s always been about.


The politics of participation

Back in the day, civic participation was held to be a good thing in itself. However, one of the arguments we made in the Civic Web research was that the internet was just as likely to be used for anti-democratic purposes as it was for democratic ones; and the past decade has shown that it can be an immensely valuable tool for right-wing activists – for racists, fascists, and conspiracists of all kinds. You’ve followed that through in your own research more recently. What do you think you have learnt about these groups, and how they use technology? Are they using technology in the same ways as left-wing activists, but just with different aims in view? What, if anything, could or should be done to curb this kind of hate speech?

This could be a very long answer, because we’ve found out so much during our research, particularly in India but also in the UK, in Brazil and elsewhere. But I’ll try to make three succinct points. First, the networks of the right and far right online are often well financed, linked to powerful political interests and generally more systematic and disciplined than those of citizens with a commitment to democracy. They are not held back by moral scruples, or by anxieties about spreading distorted information.

Second, discourses about Freedom of Speech which treat it as an absolute democratic value, even above the right not to be murdered or molested, such as the ones coming out of France, the US and India, have done incalculable damage to public perceptions of what is and what is not “civic” online, and what is and is not actually happening to fellow citizens. The worst forms of dehumanisation, discrimination, threat, bullying and harassment in the form of racist, misogynist and disablist comments, or Islamophobia and more, are not just circulated and tolerated but defended by politicians and the mainstream media. This leaves little recourse for those wishing to bring a modicum of safety and accurate representation to historically oppressed and marginalised groups online. The suppression of some people’s rights and voice becomes the price we pay for others to air their hate vocally online and in the media.

And third, but most importantly, many rightwing and far right political parties and politicians have a stake in maintaining the hateful environment which adds fuel to their campaigns, so it becomes fruitless to call on those governments to curb hate-speech by supremacist communities (whites, Hindus, Catholics or whoever). In fact, many experts we spoke to explained that hate speech laws are so tricky precisely because they are often used against those (minority communities, dissidents) who are trying to defend themselves from violent discrimination.

Implications for educators

To all intents and purposes, New Labour’s citizenship education project has been abandoned by British education policy makers. Arguably, even under Labour, it never had the full support it needed, especially in terms of teacher training. Is there anything of this that you feel is worth preserving, or reinventing? What would you see as good practice in citizenship education, and are there examples you could point to? How might citizenship education relate to media education, or to the use of media more generally? Does citizenship education need to extend beyond the school, or should it happen outside schools entirely?

One of the things that we have repeatedly recommended in our work is that there should be a merging together of critical media education and political literacy. It is absolutely clear that without critical media literacy, any form of citizenship education will fall short. It is clear, likewise, that both citizenship and media educators need to understand and be alert to histories and genealogies of racism and misogyny. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, the types of issues being raised in British secondary school media studies lessons and classrooms investigated the institutional power of media, the ways in which representation and ideology are intertwined and the sites of audience engagement or resistance. Films, television programmes and music videos were subjected to structural and technical analysis by teenagers in a range of ways, and the relevance of concepts such as ideology and propaganda were debated. Those debates, at their best, went to the heart of what democracy means and how it is practiced, and enabled young people to examine how the power imbalances in representation allowed and suppressed the voice of different citizen groups, while containing criticism of political elites.

All of this supported the fledgling citizenship curriculum across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is no accident that a commitment to that form of critical citizenship was deliberately undermined by the conservative government at the same time as they were downgrading and side-lining media studies in schools and underfunding social sciences in universities. We would argue that human rights education and education for social justice tailored to local and national histories should be implemented in curricula from primary school upwards in every country and that teachers should be trained by pedagogues with a commitment to democratising citizenship so that they can be part of this. That’s the longer-term goal.

However, at the same time, in the medium-term, we also need reform both in the media and in the political system. The mainstream media monopolies need to be broken up, and disinformation and soft-pedalling of government rhetoric called out and fined. Voting reforms are needed to ensure more transparent and equitable processes. Technology companies need to partner with grassroots women’s, human and civil rights organisations on the ground in every country to train both their AI teams and their moderation teams to better recognise and react to dehumanising and inciting speech against marginalised groups. It should be made easier to take legal sanctions against groups and individuals who sponsor and participate in vigilante and other forms of racist violence.

Of course, this begs the question: what should we do when many corporations, police forces, armed forces, politicians, bureaucrats and the mainstream media are all implicated in and take the side of the forces of hate, violence and oppression? The answer is obvious and painful: citizens are going to have to risk their lives – and we can see how the protestors in the US, in Occupied Palestine, in Kashmir, at Shaheen Baug in India, on the demonstrations in Brazil, Colombia and Myanmar are doing exactly that. We can see that children and young people across the globe are increasingly committed to fighting industrial and political-ecological destruction. Formalising media and citizenship education might be a good, longer-term response to what’s happening; but in the short term, these political struggles are only likely to intensify. Critical media and civic educators can support these struggles outside formal structures, and strive to understand, learn from and shape their pedagogic and political significance as a means and expression of what Paolo Friere eloquently called conscientisation.